Expert Voices

Lost in Space Race: Women Denied Proper Place in History (Op-Ed)

JPL women scientists
Unsung heroes of the Space Race: A historic photo of women scientists at JPL. (Image credit: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Nathalia Holt is a science writer and author of NY Times bestseller "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars" (Little, Brown and Co., 2016) and "Cured: The People who Defeated HIV" (Plume 2015). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and Time. Holt contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The black-and-white image is surprisingly crisp despite its advanced age. When I first saw the photograph, taken in 1955, two things struck me: The sheer number of women, intent on their work, and then, puzzlingly, the abbreviated caption. Although 14 women are depicted in the photograph, the archives at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, could identify only three of its former employees and had no contact information for them. As the women in the photograph gripped their pencils, their images remained frozen in time, their names and stories seemingly lost to history. Sadly, our pioneering scientists are frequently forgotten, and it is the contributions of women that are most often overlooked. ['Rise of the Rocket Girls' (US 2016): Book Excerpt']

I started making phone calls to track down the early women pioneers of NASA and soon found myself swamped in a sea of Barbaras, Helens and Virginias. I contacted 43 Barbara Paulsons in five states before I found the right one, in Iowa. Our first phone call, however, took my breath away.

On Jan. 31, 1958, Paulson sat in mission control in California. She was 30 years old and had been working in the laboratory since she was a teenager. As she sat, hunched over a light table, with paper and a pencil, standing behind her was a group of prominent men, eagerly looking over her shoulder. In fact, famed physicist Richard Feynman was standing so close that she could feel his breath tickling the back of her neck, while Lee DuBridge, then the president of Caltech, was peeking at her paper anxiously. They were all waiting to learn if they had just launched America's first satellite or had simply sent a hunk of metal high into the air that was about to drop into the sea.

Three months before, the Soviet Union had sent Sputnik, the world's first satellite, into space; it passed overhead every 90 minutes. Then, just a month later, the Soviets launched a second Sputnik — this time, with a dog inside. The repeated success of Sputnik was putting immense pressure on the Dwight Eisenhower administration, especially after America's first attempt at a satellite, Project Vanguard, burst into flames on the launchpad — a humiliating failure.

Book cover for "Rise of the Rocket Girls" by Nathalia Holt. (Image credit: Little Brown and Co.)

So the team at JPL hurried to bring home the country's first success in the space race. A rocket blasted off in Florida that would launch the first U.S. satellite — dubbed Explorer 1 — to space. Meanwhile, the team in California tracked its position. When Paulson plotted the trajectory of Explorer 1, proving that the satellite had made it, she was ushering in a new age of space exploration and even the birth of NASA. I wondered how, after such a stunning accomplishment, her career could ever be forgotten.

Women scientists are so frequently denied recognition for their work that there's a name for the phenomenon: The Matilda Effect. Coined in 1993 by Margaret Rossiter, a professor at Cornell University examining the history of science, the term has been used to describe the unequal distribution of awards, conference presentations and funding to women scientists.

The instances are as tragic as they are numerous. One of the most glaring examples is that of Rosalind Franklin, who in 1952 took the famous image "Photo 51," which demonstrates DNA's helical structure. When a Nobel Prize was awarded to three men in 1962 for the discovery of the double helix, it was thanks, in no small part, to Franklin's work. Tragically, she died at age 37 of ovarian cancer, without receiving proper recognition. So much of what we have today, from genome mapping to gene therapies, would not have been possible without her research. [Beyond Tesla: History's Most Overlooked Scientists]

Of course, it's not just women who are unrecognized. A 2011 poll of 1,000 registered voters found that 66 percent of Americans could not name a single living scientist. The researchers who do gain recognition in our society tend to be the leaders of their laboratories, and for the most part, even today, they are overwhelmingly male. Currently, women account for just 21 percent of full professors in the United States. Given this intrinsic bias, perhaps it isn't surprising how many women are lost in the shuffle of history.

Over the course of her 45-year career, Paulson was part of an astounding number of NASA missions. She was there when the space agency formed in 1958, working on the nation's first probes to the moon and planets. Later, she helped the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft wind their way through our solar system, and helped rovers explore the surface of Mars. When she retired in 1993, she left behind a hard-working group of men and women at NASA, who may not all remember her name but who certainly stand on her shoulders.

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Despite Paulson's wide influence, when it came time to celebrate the space agency's milestones, her years of work, and those of her female colleagues, went unnoticed. On Jan. 31, 2008, there was a gala in honor of the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 . The room was packed with the last remaining engineers and scientists who had made history a half century before. However, left off the guest list were the surviving women critical to the mission's success. No invitations were sent to the all-female team that had spent years calculating the rocketry critical to the satellite's triumph and who had even worked in the control room that momentous night. They included Paulson, Margaret Brunn, Helen Ling and Susan Finley, who, at 79 years old, is still working at the lab and is NASA's longest-serving female employee.

We are in danger of losing the histories of our brilliant women scientists, whose pasts are rapidly vanishing to time. The women of NASA remind us that these are chronicles worth remembering. When we do so, we honor not just their legacies but also inspire the next generation of young women who may find, in their stories, a reflection of themselves and what they aspire to be. ['Rise of the Rocket Girls' Tells the Stories of NASA's Women Pioneers]

Editor's note: Holt will be in Washington, D.C., on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. EDT for the first "It's Science! With Politics & Prose and" event, which is free and open to the public. See the Politics & Prose calendar for details.

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